Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Carlos Ruiz Zafon has single-handedly put his beloved city of Barcelona on the map as the perfect setting for mysteries basking in the eternal lights of art, history, and literature. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is, without a doubt, the series which best exemplifies the author’s adoration of his hometown as well as his literary prowess. In the second novel, titled The Angel’s Game, he takes us back in time to the 1920s and 1930s to meet a young pulp fiction writer whose life is about to change for both the worst, and the best.
Table of contents
Carlos Ruiz Zafon Spins the Wheels of Misfortune
Though magic might not be real (to my limited knowledge, of course), I’d like to think many would argue books come about as close as possible to the genuine article. Living lives of their own and encasing within an immortal monument to their authors, their ability to guide, transform and shape our civilization should never be underestimated. In The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, we are made to meet with a young pulp fiction writer about to embark on a mission to create precisely the kind of book capable of moulding the future of mankind.
This second entry in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is a prequel to the first, taking us to the 1920s and 1930s in Barcelona. While I do highly recommend you read The Shadow of the Wind for the unforgettable experience it offers as well as the world-building it accomplishes, I don’t think anything would stop you from diving into The Angel’s Game first and enjoying it for all it has to offer.
With all this out of the way, it’s time to get acquainted with David Martin, a writer living in a once-abandoned mansion, making his living by constantly churning out one baroque tale of the underworld after another following a deal made with some sleazy publishers. Having endured a traumatizing childhood in its own right, books have offered Martin a refuge since his early age, one he never thought could betray him.
There are a few complicated dimensions to his life, namely manifested in his few and sometimes unusual relationships with other people. Namely, they consist of his patron and father figure Pedro Vidal, who essentially sponsored Martin’s life since his father’s death. Then, there is Cristina with whom he is in love, but feels hopelessly out of his depth. Finally, there is the unlikely Isabella, a young girl intent on becoming Martin’s assistant so that she might learn to write from him.
One day, a presence seeps into his life, in the guise of a mysterious French editor by the name of Andreas Corelli. Not only does he cure Martin of his terminal illness, but he hires him for an outrageous sum to write a rather unusual book: a new religion, capable of changing people’s hearts. However, the further Martin gets into his work, the more he realizes sinister forces are at play behind the scenes, somehow related to the deep past, to the previous owner of the mansion who also happened to be a writer.
I stepped into the bookshop and breathed in that perfume of paper and magic that strangely no one had ever thought of bottling.― Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game
The Art of the Long Mystery in The Angel’s Game
As a general rule of thumb (obviously there are exceptions to the rule, let’s not get into it right now), mystery novels tend to have shorter, more compact stories than other genres. There are several reasons for this, chief among them being the need to constantly drum excitement for the audience, but there is another overlooked cause in my opinion: it’s extremely difficult to weave a long and compelling tapestry which won’t leave your readers confused and/or indifferent.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon has proved himself to be an exception to this rule, having penned quite a few long and winding mysteries which, nevertheless, garnered the love and respect of readers and writers alike. This talent of his was already demonstrated in the first novel of the series, and with The Angel’s Game I would argue that the tightened and polished it even further.
The enigma surrounding the book commissioned by Andreas Corelli from David Martin doesn’t start to take up our attention until we’re a bit further into the story, with Zafon having chosen to properly build up to it, step by step. Instead, he masterfully injects the novel with ever-increasing doses of mystery, mounting the puzzling situations one on top of the other while mind-twisting questions teasing us their seemingly unreachable answers.
By the time we actually get to the main course, we’re fully primed and ready to enter a world of magical realism, one where unseen, terrifying and fantastical worlds may collide for split-seconds with our own reality. Personally-speaking, this resulted in The Angel’s Game feeling almost like a five hundred pages-long thriller which felt like at it moved at breakneck speed even during the few segments where nothing much happens, so powerful was my enthrallment with the mystery itself.
I can see how some readers, especially those who fell in love with the first book, might feel this one to be a little too twist-heavy at the end, and perhaps carrying a couple dead bodies too many. I will agree that it took me some effort at the very end to make sense of the final revelations, and that the novel probably didn’t need all this death to retain the reader’s attention. On the other hand, if one is to consider those as transgressions, they must also recognize they are of a far lesser and more acceptable nature than the heaps of tripe published these days.
Every book has a soul, the soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and dream about it.― Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game
How Books Shape Worlds
As you might have rightfully expected from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the plot is heavily accentuated with nuanced ruminations around various topics in the world of literature. More precisely, The Angel’s Game is primarily concerned with the power literature can hold over people, how it can be used to move them in any way one desires.
The more interesting discussions, at least in my opinion, occur between Andreas Corelli and the protagonist, Martin. The former often engages in long monologues to explain to the latter the whole purpose of the project, and how exactly he ought to approach it. He paints vivid and solid arguments which demonstrate just how heavily human history has been influenced by fiction, and how we’ve all drawn on it to learn lessons in hopes of applying them to the real world.
Just to clarify, I highly enjoyed all of the dialogues in this book, written in natural and believable tones, the words and their arrangement clearly reflecting the personalities of those speaking them. There are also thought-provoking discussions on plenty of other aspects in life, namely between Martin and Isabella, serving as welcome breaks from the nigh-omnipresent subject of literature.
In addition to exploring the topic of how literature can change the world on a macro level, we also get to see it on a smaller, more personal and intimate scale through the many characters we meet over the course of Martin’s investigation into the previous owner of his mansion. Some have found inspiration, salvation and wisdom in books, others were brought to the doorsteps of their own personal hell, but none are left indifferent, save a couple of less important characters. There are enough examples for any reader to relate in some fashion, at least I would like to think so.
My only real complaint about the second book in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, is that the actual Cemetery of Forgotten Books didn’t appear much, nor did it really play significant role in the story, at least, not like the first time around. I do understand the need for stories to develop organically, and that shoving it in there unnecessarily would have done the book disservice, but still, it’s one of the most fascinating settings and literature, and we got to see so little of it.
Finally, I don’t think it’s possible to write a review about The Angel’s Game or any other book in the series without mentioning Carlos Ruiz Zafon‘s impeccable use of Barcelona as the setting for his story. His knowledge and love for the city bleed through pages, and he often uses its remarkable Gothic architecture to enhance whatever scenes he might be setting up. He makes it feel so central to the story, that I find it impossible to imagine the events of this novel taking place in any other city on Earth.
|May 18, 2010
The Final Verdict
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is, in my mind, the perfect sequel to The Shadow of the Wind, and a very strong entry in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Offering a long, winding and exceptionally-engaging mystery filled with philosophical deliberations on the power of the written word, it’s elevated to the level of masterpiece through its cast of profound and engaging characters.
If you’ve enjoyed the first novel and are thinking about diving further into the series, or are in search of page-turner type of mystery centred on the world of books, then I strongly urge you to pick this novel up at the earliest opportunity.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
(September 25, 1964 – June 19, 2020)
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish novelist whose first work, The Prince of Mist earned him the Edebe literary prize for young adult fiction. His subsequent novels, which included The Midnight Palace and Marina have eventually earned Zafon the the honor of being the most successful contemporary Spanish author, with his books having been published in over 45 countries and translated in 40 languages.